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THE LETTER WRITER

Excerpt

The Letter Writer

His was an arrival of dark portents: Black smoke on the Manhattan skyline. Hushed crowds gazing toward a crosstown calamity. Whispers of a ruthless enemy, willing to do anything.

Clearly, something terrible had just happened. But what? Woodrow Cain, groggy from a long passage out of the South, eyed the worried faces outside of Penn Station and tried to come up with an answer.

It was just him now. Wife gone, daughter abandoned. He'd forsaken all he held dear for a fresh start, only to be greeted by symptoms of mass hysteria. Suitcase in hand, he turned to a man in a fedora.

"What is it?" he asked. "What's going on?"

"The Normandie," the man said. "She's on fire at Pier 88."

"The Normandie?"

"The big luxury liner, the one they're turning into a troop ship. Guy I talked to says the Germans did it. She's rolled over on her side, gonna sink any minute. Thousands of people down there, even the Mayor."

"La Guardia?" Cain was still learning who was important up here.

"In a black rain coat, soaking wet from the hoses. Heard it on the radio. Walking the fire lines like he owns the joint."

"He better be ready for more of the same," another man said. "If they can do this, who says they can't fly a bunch of planes in? Bomb us to smithereens, just like the Japs at Pearl."

Others nodded, but the first guy shook his head.

"The waterfront. That's where they'll come for us, just like today. The longshoremen, the shipbuilders, even the goddamn fishermen—half of 'em's either kraut or dago, and who you think they're rooting for? You watch. This is only the beginning."

Cain looked up at the sky. The smoke was spreading, an inky smudge blowing east from the Hudson. He shook his head in angry disbelief. Ten lousy minutes in New York, and already his new life felt as full of loss and betrayal as the one he'd left behind.

*    *    *

A revealing account, don't you think? It came to me secondhand, but my source is trustworthy, and I will vouch for its accuracy as if I had witnessed it myself.

The day in question occurred two months ago, on the ninth of February in this tumultuous year of 1942. I wish I could report that conditions have improved in the interim, but if anything the city's fortunes have become even more unsettling. U-Boats prowl the mouth of our harbor, sinking ships whenever they please. Residents of penthouse apartments—yes, I still know a few, despite my reduced circumstances—say the offshore glow of flames is visible in the night sky. My more numerous acquaintances from tenements and flophouses swear that fishing trawlers from our own docks are secretly refueling these underwater killers. If that sounds far-fetched, then what are we to make of the thirty-three German spies who were just sentenced to prison at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn? And if it was so easy to round up that many, how many more must yet lurk in our midst, relaying vital information by shortwave radio, or by handwritten messages in invisible ink?

In Yorkville, our very own Little Deutschland of the Upper East Side, the streets have gone eerily silent since war was declared, but only last summer its inhabitants were packing the movie houses for Nazi propaganda films. They marched by the thousands down 86th Street, the German Broadway, wearing brown shirts and swastikas and singing the Horst Wessel song. And who can forget how the Italians of East Harlem celebrated the conquest of Ethiopia, by raising tricolor flags from every window and cheering Mussolini's name? That fellow in the fedora, the one who spoke to Mr. Cain so direly of our future, may be an alarmist, but he was right about the abundance of enemy nationals. Three-quarters of the seven and a half million people of this city are first- or second-generation immigrants. Me included, I should add, and practically all of my neighbors, plus just about everyone I've ever known or met since I first arrived here so long ago, at the age of eleven.

Who are we to trust, then? And when events inevitably turn for the worse, who are we to blame? When you are born in one homeland, and then move to another, and the two become mortal enemies, who can say for sure where your loyalties will reside? Those are the questions which press upon our souls.


© Dan Fesperman